False Gandhi

by Elie Kedourie | March 21, 1983

Richard Attenborough's Gandhi purports to tell the life story of Mohandas K. Gandhi, known as the Mahatma—the Great Soul. In order to depict the hero and to bring home the special quality of his actions and his life, the director and the screenwriter construct a panorama of Indian history from World War I up to Independence in 1948. In the center of this panorama stands Gandhi, as though to indicate that the momentous events that a whole subcontinent experienced during this period had in him their epicenter and their cause. Ben Kingsley, the actor who plays the title role, has achieved an arresting verisimilitude in his impersonation of Gandhi, and it is his achievement that gives an otherwise undistinguished film a claim to be noticed. (See "The Man Who Could Not Lose," by Stanley Kauffmann, TNR, December 13, 1982.) In visual terms the film is not particularly inventive, and is at times stodgy and cliche-ridden. In terms of historical truth, this film is not consonant with the record, and its political and spiritual message is profoundly confused, fundamentally false, and unwholesome. For this reason, through no fault of his own, Ben Kingsley's outstanding depiction of Gandhi, instead of imaginatively conveying a truth that enlightens and moves, regrettably becomes mere specious, seductive mummery.

Throughout the film, the British rulers of India are portrayed as insensitive oppressors. The military wallow in complacency; brutality is their one answer to any difficulty, and low cunning their highest mental achievement. The civilians are likewise a poor lot who are completely out of their depth. Repression is their only policy, but when the inspired, determined, saintly figure of Gandhi challenges them to do their worst, they are thrown off their stride and bewilderment quickly sets in.

 

If only things had been so simple. Chelmsford, Reading, Irwin (among the Viceroys who had to deal with Gandhi and the Congress Party) were highly intelligent and subtle men, perhaps even too subtle, hesitant, and accommodating for the crude realities of demagogic politics as practiced by the Congress, and for the deep suspicion and fears that divided the Hindu from the Moslem. Irwin, in particular, far from being the martinet portrayed in the film, had a veritable weakness for Gandhi, whom he admired for being "sincere." Disastrously, this was the highest term of commendation in the political vocabulary of this Viceroy who, shortly afterward as Lord Halifax, saw the same valuable attribute in both Hitler and Mussolini.

The Moslem leader, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, is portrayed as a relentless and repellent figure, coldly determined to rebuff Gandhi's transparent and overflowing goodwill, and to effect a cruel separation between fellow Hindus. As all the world knows, Hindu-Moslem antagonism has deep and complex roots, and as events showed, Gandhi's goodwill—and even his murder at the hands of a Hindu fanatic—did nothing to assuage the antagonism or to moderate hatreds. Why, then, should two foreign filmmakers take it upon themselves to put Gandhi so emphatically among the virtuous sheep, and Jinnah so clearly among the irredeemable goats? Both, after all, were politicians doing their best for the interests they championed. If one wishes to apportion praise or blame, one should perhaps give a hint that while Jinnah was intractably for a separate Pakistan, Gandhi maintained against all the evidence, and in the most inflexible manner, that there had never been, and there could never be anything but one, indivisible India. This kind of empty posture is reminiscent of Gandhi's absurd exhortation to the German Jews to pacify and disarm Hitler by offering no resistance to his persecutions.

The most glaring example of this film's falseness to the record is its account of the Amritsar massacre of 1919. As is well known, a crowd assembled in an enclosed space in Amritsar was subjected on General Dyer's orders, without due warning, to a sustained fusillade in which hundreds were killed and thousands were wounded. Dyer was grievously at fault in not giving warning, and even more so in ordering his troops to fire, considering that the assembly, illegal as it was, posed no immediate danger to life or property. However, the film manages to give the impression that this was an unprovoked atrocity perpetrated on a jolly holiday crowd. The fact is that conditions in Amritsar and the Punjab were highly disturbed, precisely as a result of Gandhi's campaign of passive disobedience, and any government responsible for law and order (whether native or alien) would have had the greatest apprehension about the outcome of so much agitation. Again, the particular crowd in question was being harangued and incited by orators who clearly did not possess Gandhi's skill in simultaneously arousing and restraining an audience. At the time, Gandhi himself realized and regretted his own share of responsibility for letting things get out of hand at Amritsar. In the light of this massacre the question arises whether Gandhi's methods led to consequences very different from those of the provocative tactics deliberately adopted by avowed terrorists who hope to spread disaffection and rebelliousness among the population by goading the authorities into heavyhanded repression.

 

All of this makes the film a missed opportunity in the same way that Lawrence of Arabia was a missed opportunity. In both cases, the protagonists were deeply involved in dramatic political issues. A good filmmaker would have grasped the opportunity of showing a highly unusual character involved in the cut-and-thrust of politics with opponents just as earnest as he was, and whose case was just as respectable and just as worthy of consideration. As it is, though both films lavishly use technicolor, the pictures they manage to present are strictly black and white—the saintly Gandhi, the heroic, passionate Lawrence, doing battle against various foolish, low, and contemptible antagonists. There is dull, lifeless, sentimental, and pious edification, instead of the living, life-enhancing, tension of, say, Viva Zapata or Circle of Deceit, where truth about political action and its tragedies is imaginatively and vividly conveyed.

 

For there can be no doubt that, whatever else he was, Gandhi first and foremost was a political figure. He had made a discovery, namely that he could tease and provoke the British rulers of India, and make them lose their self-confidence, by disobeying them, by inciting the masses to disobedience, and accepting whatever punishment the rulers chose to mete out. This passive disobedience was a political weapon like any other, which might or might not work depending on the circumstances. With Hitler it would not have worked, nor with Stalin and his successors, nor with the despotic predecessors of the British in Gandhi's India. Whether it produced results in Gandhi's own lifetime is debatable. The British Labour Party came to power in 1945, and led by Clement Attlee, showed a blinkered determination to be quickly rid of India at all costs. It is a moot point whether under different circumstances the Hindu-Moslem civil war would have been unleashed, or Gandhi himself received the consecration of martyrdom, and of posthumous apotheosis.

 

Contrary to the impression given by the film, passive disobedience is not a particularly virtuous or elevated political weapon. It depends on rousing and inciting a crowd to break the law, and a roused crowd may become indistinguishable from a mob. Not even Gandhi, whose disdain of punishment and suffering gave him great moral authority, could manage to restrain the mob, particularly in the dark days of 1947-1948. In advocating that the law be flouted, Gandhi was treading on very dangerous ground. He began his career in South Africa precisely by claiming that all British subjects, Indian immigrants included, were entitled to equality under the law. This law, to which he had rightly appealed, he now dismissed as incompatible with his sentiments and beliefs. If law was to be broken at one's whim, was there anything or anyone that would not be perpetually at risk, and could even an independent India conduct its affairs in an orderly and peaceable manner? Gandhi was also sentimental about poverty, as though the poor, simply by virtue of being poor, enjoy a moral superiority over those who are not poor. Connected with this was another paradoxical belief, namely that the salvation of Indians lay in going back to the village and each one spinning his own cloth. "It is not that we did not know how to invent machinery, but our forefathers knew that, if we set our hearts after such things, we would become slaves and lose our moral fibre. They therefore, after due deliberation, decided that we should do only what we could with our hands and feet. .. . The common people lived independently and followed their agricultural occupation. They enjoyed true home rule." This belief was paradoxical, of course, since an independent India, which Gandhi also desired, could not possibly survive if it were to follow Gandhi's anti-industrial recipes.

 

Gandhi wished India to be rid of alien rule and to govern itself. However, willing the end, he was too squeamish or naive (or hypocritical) to will the means. Here we come to the central, and most pernicious confusion propagated by this film. Gandhi is portrayed both as a political leader and as a saint. He is made to say that his dearest, lifelong aspiration is to attain, and show the way to. Love and Truth. He also declares that deprivation, i.e., divesting oneself of all possessions, desires, attachments, is the way to God. To seek Love and Truth through deprivation is a difficult and noble endeavor, but what has it to do with the Congress Party, Indian independence, or passive disobedience which is forever verging on demagogy and mob rule? For the ascetic, intent on his heavenly vision, there must be mere baubles or worse, to be rejected with lassitude and contempt. The film, however, takes it for granted that between the political struggle and the religious vision there is no contradiction or incompatibility. In this, no doubt, the film passively accepts, and thus leaves unexplored, Gandhi's own ultimate confusion. Attenborough and his screenwriter thus join the many who have been seduced by Gandhi into holding the pernicious view that good or benevolent intentions invest a political cause with holiness, and that material poverty is itself virtuous. Ironically, it is among the wellfed and materially comfortable multitudes who flock to the picture palaces of the West that they spread this corrupt gospel. A further irony is that they are able to do so only by resorting to those powerfully seductive cinematic techniques developed by that Satanic inventiveness of the West that their hero despised and condemned. 

A good film about Gandhi remains to be made. His life is documented enough and curious enough to provide an inspired director and screenwriter with abundant material to explore imaginatively and to convey with truth the tragic tensions and confusions between the sacred and the profane that pervade the life of this extraordinary man.

Elie Kedourie is professor of politics at the London School of Economics. His most recent book is Islam in the Modern World (A New Republic Book/Holt, Rinehart and Winston).

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